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Cultural Awareness:
The Question We Are Born With

( Second article of a Series by Scott Clift )

So, who are you?

I know…it’s really unfair of me to be asking you that question. But I’m not asking you to tell me; I’m more interested in whether you can answer that question for yourself. So go on, ask yourself:

"Who am I?"

How do you go about answering that question? We could talk about names (‘My name is Scott’). We could talk about features (‘5’10", blue eyes, brown hair, medium build, fair skin’). We could talk about interests ( ‘Reading, exercising, camping’). All this information would be a start – if I was trying to write a ‘personals’ advertisement.

But this three-word question is so much deeper than that, so much more encompassing of our personalities, characters, and histories. On a deep level I believe we’ve all struggled to answer this question for ourselves. Sometimes we do it consciously, but most of the time we do it unconsciously. Nevertheless, it may be the most important question we will ever seek the answer to.

It’s a question we are born with. Have you ever watched an infant making connections with her world? She’s starting the process of finding where she fits. She makes attachments, develops fears, discovers wants and needs – all part of the process of finding out who she is.

And what about the toddler, testing their parents and caregivers at every opportunity? How many times does he annoy us with his constant probing of the world and his place in it? And yet its only natural – he’s learning new ways of interacting with his world and finding out where he fits.

It would be impossible to answer the question "Who am I?" without talking about the people and experiences that have formed us. Our family, our playmates, our teachers - these are just some of the vital pieces that make up who we are. And yet, even still, the question "Who am I?" is not easy to put into words.

For our purposes, let’s talk about who we are in terms of culture. If we define culture broadly, we can immediately draw some very simple conclusions. 1. We all have culture. 2. Our culture is extremely important. In the course of these articles we are going to use the word "culture" in the broadest sense; in a nutshell, culture is everything that makes us who we are. It is our family, our location, our intelligence, our skin color, our abilities (or disabilities), our access to goods and services, our values, our religion, our friends, our teachers, our sexual orientation, our education, ….you get the point.

Everything we do is cultural. We can’t help it. Why do we expect men to wear pants and not skirts? Is it because skirts are for women? Not everywhere. Why do we consider a telephone to be necessary for living? Probably because most of us have always had one, and we have come to rely on it as a pattern for living.

But let’s dig a little deeper. Do you behave independently or in connection to others? That’s cultural. Do you believe in this God or that God? That’s cultural. Do you express your inner feelings loudly or not at all? That’s cultural. What’s your attitude toward alcohol? That’s cultural. What’s your disposition toward someone who speaks a different language? That’s cultural.

Each of your answers to theses questions is based on your experiences in life. Perhaps you found yourself answering these questions just like your parents or a respected mentor would have. Perhaps you caught yourself answering in reaction against the same people. In any event, your responses come out of your experiences with people and situations that have been positively or negatively influential, and that is your culture.

But why does all this matter? Why should we talk about our culture so much? If it’s just about personal culture, about our own stories, why should it matter that we discuss it in a more public forum? And for myself, why should I have a job coordinating a statewide project focused on training child care providers in cultural dynamics?

(See artists & order info below)
'Treasure' - See artists & order info below.
We have to, because our children need us to be doing the hard work it will take.

Our state and our country is becoming more and more diverse all the time. In the future that our children will inhabit, they must have the skills to deal with differences in ways that you or I have not. With increased amounts and varieties of information, people, and situations they will find themselves in, our children must have a firm grasp of who they are and what their culture is. Without such a grasp of self and identity, their lives will be ruled by insecurity and fear.

Understanding this to be the case, the State of Minnesota developed the Cultural Dynamics Education Project (CDEP) in the hope of training all childcare providers and educators in the importance of culture and its role in everyone’s life. While our training has yet to become a mandated requirement, its importance is nonetheless a vital step towards creating a future in which our children will succeed.

Through our training workshops, we seek to journey with educators and providers in our understanding of culture and how we have such important influence in the lives of our smallest children. Many of the things that children accept as "normal" are set in place by the time they are six. It cannot be stressed enough, therefore, how important it is that the messages our children receive about who they are remain consistent and positive from the time they are born.

Parents are obviously the primary "culture builders" in the lives of their children. Parents pass on values, attitudes, expressions, characteristics (both mental and physical), and lifestyles that surround the child from their very first day of conception. Yes, cultural formation begins even before birth! A mother’s daily routine, stress level, choice of music, level of physical activity – all these begin influencing a child before their birthday. It goes without saying that we look to our parents for the first cues for how to be in the world.

While we as educators and providers cannot duplicate the efforts of parents’ interactions and cultural norms, we can strive towards greater harmony with them in how we speak, teach, play, and care for their children.

However, understanding and being able to act in harmony is so much easier said than done. It requires that we must be aware and understand our own culture before we can hope to dialogue with someone else about theirs. It requires that we are willing to identify that within us which is merely cultural, and also that which we hold in common with all people. I have found in my own journey of cultural awareness that less and less of what I once thought is black and white, right and wrong, us vs. them. I also have begun to realize how many false assumptions and stereotypes I have based attitudes and actions on.

Through talking with others, however, I begin to see how my experiences (which I have taken to be "normal") are uniquely and simply mine! While I still retain my values and my ways of expressing things, it is through my understanding of where I come from that I begin to accept where other’s are because of where they come from.

This, then, is why it is so important that we begin and continue to talk about culture. Whether it is in one of CDEPs training workshops, with a parent of a child we care for, or a colleague, talking about culture – talking about who we are – is vital to our children and their success in a changing world of differences.

So, who are you?

Artists Credits and 'blank' Art Cards as well as Art Card Ordering Info is grateful that our Cultural Awareness Series has received permission to display the artwork shown above and elsewhere in this Series. To see the complete display of the building's artwork visit the ECRC website at

The Faces of Our Future Reflect Our Past
The exterior brick walls of the Early Childhood Resource Center (ECRC) in Minneapolis, MN reflect our commitment to serving the children of our many pasts. Painted by local youth artists, our beautiful mural remains a landmark on the Lake Street corridor in South Minneapolis. Blank cards of portions of our mural may be purchased via the online order form. All proceeds contribute to improving the lives and education of children in our community.

Mural Artists:

Muralist/Director: Marilyn Lindstrom
Youth: Natchez Beaulieu, Constanza Carballo, Jose Curbelo, Adonijah Espinosa, Adrian Garza, Justin Kampinen, Warith Muhammad, Shani Nestingen, Nathan Pundt, Brett Stately, Aerin Vanhala, Dylan Wolking
Mentors: Carlos Menchaca and Mali Kouanchao
Youthworks/Americorps: Richard Garfield and Rachel Rendon
Guest Artist: Chris Darsow

MN CDEP's logo

Cultural Dynamics Education Project  (CDEP)
Created in response to Minnesota's changing demographics, CDEP educates child educators and care providers in the significance and dynamics surrounding each individual's culture. It is affiliated with the Early Childhood Resource Center (ECRC) in Minneapolis.
Please visit the CDEP website at

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